NZ Super Rugby a war of attrition: Gatland

Coach Warren Gatland has his Chiefs ready for 10 weeks of intensity when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off this weekend.

WARREN GATLAND
WARREN GATLAND Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Super Rugby Aotearoa will last just 10 weeks but Chiefs coach Warren Gatland says the non-stop diet of brutal New Zealand derbies makes it a war of attrition.

Gatland's team will face the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday night in the first professional rugby union match to be played since the sporting world was shut down by COVID-19.

A large crowd is expected at the indoor Forsyth Barr Stadium and a high-paced contest is virtually assured, potentially satiating the appetite of a global audience of rugby fans.

Once the excitement eases, former Wales coach Gatland says negotiating matches against motivated Kiwi opposition every weekend will become a minefield.

It will induce a different kind of player fatigue to the heavy diet of international travel that has long been a burden in Super Rugby.

"It wasn't the challenge I came back for but in some ways it's different, it's even more exciting," Gatland said on Thursday.

"We recognise how hard the NZ derbies are and the players know how tough it is. Players are going to hold nothing back. They see it as bragging rights for 12 months so every game is almost like a trial for higher honours.

"Whoever wins this, everyone's going to remember it."

Gatland said his omission of All Blacks captain Sam Cane with a slight back niggle and the benching of star five-eighth Aaron Cruden are a sign of things to come.

He plans to employ player rotation, player welfare management will be critical in the inaugural five-team round-robin format.

Gatland is without five injured tight forwards, including All Blacks Nathan Harris, Angus Ta'avao and Atu Moli but that is countered by the return from injury over the lockdown period of Test forwards Luke Jacobson and Nepo Laulala, who will both start.

One-Test All Black Josh Ioane is the Highlanders' starting five-eighth outside Aaron Smith, having played at inside centre during their one-from-five start to the tournament proper earlier this year.

Coach Aaron Mauger has relieved Mitch Hunt of the chief playmaker role and shifted him to fullback.

Highlanders: Mitch Hunt, Sam Gilbert, Rob Thompson, Sio Tomkinson, Jona Nareki, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Marino Mikaele Tu'u, Dillon Hunt, Shannon Frizell, Pari Pari Parkinson, Josh Dickson, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon (capt), Ayden Johnstone. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Kayne Hammington, Teihorangi Walden, Vilimoni Koroi.

Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Shaun Stevenson, Quinn Tupaea, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sean Wainui, Kaleb Trask, Brad Weber (capt), Pita Gus Sowakula, Lachlan Boshier, Luke Jacobson, Tupou Vaa'i, Mitchell Brown, Nepo Laulala, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Aidan Ross. Reserves: Bradley Slater, Ryan Coxon, Ross Geldenhuys, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Dylan Nel, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Aaron Cruden, Etene Nanai-Seturo.


AAP